Holy Week

In Holy Week we walk with Jesus during the last week of his life. We celebrate on Palm Sunday, turn sorrowful on Maundy Thursday, experience the crucifixion on Good Friday, and then resurrection on Easter Sunday.
I was saved on Easter Sunday 45 years ago. I know we don’t use the term “saved” or “conversion” in the Reformed tradition but indulge me as I share my testimony with you through my Pentecostal lens. My conversation happened at a small Pentecostal church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a Sunday School class! Because I had to return to Chicago for college, I couldn’t stay for worship, so they baptized me at the end of Sunday School before worship began. I received the glossolalia experience of the Holy Spirit while coming out of the water! This continues to be a bright light in my spiritual journey. I still get emotional when reflecting upon that experience.
I have since had many more conversions and experiences with God, including a call to ministry, a call to seminary, and a conversion of grace to the Reformed tradition. As I look back over the steps in my Christian journey, I can see what began as a love for Jesus evolving into an ecumenical and interfaith love for all of God’s people. I can see where God shifted my focus from an individual experience to being part of a particular faith community of complex and loving human relationships.
In her On Being podcast interview with the late Pastor Eugene Peterson, Krista Tippet talks about church shopping. Peterson makes it clear that he recommends attending small churches because people will have to face relationships that are not easy. In the unedited version, Tippet responds, “I think that for most people, church is an experience they go to have, rather than being a part of a group of people.”
My hope is that for you and those who attend worship this week that church can be both an individual experience and a community involvement. My hope is that Holy Week will be a bright step in someone’s journey as they engage the grace of Jesus Christ in new and refreshing ways. Maybe this Holy Week we will make our churches a place where people are welcome to experience a life-changing God, while being in the midst of all of God’s people.
Blessed Holy Week.
Rev. Craig Howard

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Will Smith & Chris Rock

I can’t believe I just saw Will Smith strike Chris Rock at the Academy Award presentations! Rock told a joke about Smith’s wife, who was also in the audience. At first, I thought it was staged. Then, the sound was muted by ABC, as obvious words were being spoken between Smith and Rock that are not appropriate for family viewing. The entire mood of the Oscars presentation was changed for the rest of the evening. Later in his speech, Smith compared himself to Richard Williams, the character he played in his Oscar winning performance. Smith spoke of love and how he is protecting his family like the Richard Williams protected his daughters.

When I spoke with my African American friends about the incident, we were divided. Some believe Rock deserved it. Others feel that violence is not the way to solve problems. I stand in the latter camp.

For the longest time, the work of African American actors was not appreciated by the Academy. The first Oscar to a black actor was in 1939 to Hattie McDaniel. The second came in 1963 to Sidney Poitier. In 1982, Lou Gossett, Jr received best supporting actor. Of the hundreds of acting roles by African Americans from 1939 to 1982, a period of forty-three years, only 3 African Americans received a competitive academy award for acting.

In her book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein writes, “Black people are denied ownership over our own labor, whether that means the historical theft of labor through kidnapping and slavery, or the creative work that has undergirded so much of American cultural production. Because our ownership is denied, the value and fact of our labor as our labor, is rendered invisible.”

Since 1982, fifteen African Americans have won Oscars for acting. Maybe the protests and social media pressure to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans is finally bearing fruit. Society is experiencing and appreciating the great work these and other African Americans are doing in film.

Then Will Smith strikes Chris Rock. What does this say about African American men and their relationship with one another? Is there still a place for a narrative of the protective male? What assumptions and stereotypes does this act play into regarding African American men and anger, violence, and self-control?

As the Presbytery of Chicago continues to struggle with racial representation and appreciation, we are using CARE to help us negotiate these troubling waters. We are challenged to resist negative stereotypes and racial prejudices and to see people for who they are. We all have work to do on our internal issues, both anger and racism. By God’s grace we will become a beloved community of kindness and love.

Rev. Craig M. Howard


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What Time Is It

2 weeks ago Chicago removed it’s mask mandate for most public places. Yay! Although we no longer have a mask mandate or have to show our proof of vaccination in public facilities, I don’t think we can declare that the pandemic is quite over yet. Maybe we should say we are in a post-2021 time. In this new era, all future plans are tentative. Events come with a forked decision of live, online, or hybrid. In the post-2021 time, we are accustomed to shifting from celebration to cancelation in a moment’s notice. Put another way, planning in the post-2021 time is a wreck!
In her book, No Cure for Being Human, Kate Bowler talks about the three types of time in the Christian tradition. These are tragic, apocalyptic, and pastoral time. In tragic time we witness a vibrant life ravished by illness or cut short by accident. We struggle with evil that lives long while the good die young. Bowler points out, “In tragic time the problem of evil has swept away the illusion that all things will be made right, and suddenly we wonder at the goodness of the world.”
“Apocalyptic time is when “systems are irredeemably broken and injustice reigns. The veil has been lifted and now we see ourselves on the brink.” Apocalypse means to reveal. This is the time to retreat to the mountains, look for the anti-Christ. “The end of the world is nigh.”
Pastoral time is what we know as ordinary time in Christian calendar. “It is marked by the seasons, the sowing and reaping and herding that keeps the land tilled and the herds fenced. It is most of time.” Pastoral is from the word shepherd. It reminds us that our calling is watching over and caring for the ordinary: printing bulletins, attending meetings, writing sermons, and unjamming the copier.
I would like to add a fourth time. I call it layered time. It is living in all three times simultaneously. The time we are in is often determined by incidents outside of ourselves. Russian invades Ukraine and the price of gas skyrockets. COVID retreats and the pressure to return to normal ramps up. Shifting from one time to another in the layered time creates stress, pressure, and anxiety in an already wrecked system.
We feel overwhelmed, confused, and a little paranoid. We wonder where the next flair up will come from, what the next world-wide drama will be, what political decision will influence the peace, purity, and unity of our congregations. We question if this is our call or is there something else we should be doing with our time.
But we are not alone. We are surrounded by colleagues in ministry who are also seeking communion. As a connected church, we are going through time, whatever it may be, together. Our strength is in our God and in our community. Now is the time to be part of a small group, cohort, or class. We find comfort in stories, laughter, and tears of one another. We find strength and comfort when we are together.
Take the time (if you are able) during this break from COVID in post 2021 time to hang out with friends and colleagues. Call, Zoom, or meet. Get together and just enjoy being with one another. Amen.
Rev. Craig M. Howard

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March Madness!

This week begins the annual NCAA basketball tournament, and I couldn’t be happier! I love March Madness! This means filling out brackets, staying up way too late watching games on the West Coast, while sneaking peaks of games during the afternoon. I’m lousy at picking winners because I let my emotions get involved. I’m a fan of the Big Ten, hater of the ACC, root for any team in Chicago, and long for the glory days of UCLA! Like most people, I also want the underdog to knock off Goliath. The 12th seed upsetting the 5th seed is worth living for!
Perhaps this is why I am such a fan of the Salary Supplemental Grants, and the Small Church Grants the Presbytery of Chicago offers to our congregations. These grants provide an opportunity for our smaller congregations to cast a vision, create a plan, and find a new purpose for ministry. Through the generous mission donations of congregations, the presbytery can invest in the ministry and mission of smaller Presbyterian congregations throughout the Chicagoland area.
This year, the Mission Committee has added another tool to its toolbox. CrossForm is an exciting program being offered by LeaderWise. This is for any congregation (no matter the size) seeking to develop a post-pandemic mission and vision. CrossForm is designed for congregations with the following characteristics:
  • A hunger to grow in Christ
  • A commitment to incremental transformation
  • A desire to discover the congregation’s call in response to the community’s need
  • A desire to heed Jesus’ call to be salt, light, and leaven for the flourishing of all!
Possibly, there are several congregations that qualify for these grants, but either they don’t know about them, or they simply don’t ask. I will set aside the next two weeks for reaching out to congregations and asking them to apply for grants. This is my March Madness! My hope is that we increase our number and percentage of congregations who take advantage of these and other grants being offered by the Mission Committee. If you know of a congregation I should especially reach out to, please send me a note at my email address below. By strengthening the smaller congregations, we will increase the strength and vitality of the entire Presbytery of Chicago.
Rev. Craig Howard

Contact: choward@chicagopresbytery.org

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Why and Wow

Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach at River Glen Presbyterian Church in Naperville. Like most congregations, River Glen is easing into a post pandemic worship. They are doing a hybrid service with people online and people present in the sanctuary. Those in the sanctuary must wear a mask. Yet, the sense of community and fellowship can still be felt. The music from the worship band (and fabulous saxophone player!) is outstanding. Most important is the palpable presence of God reflected on the faces and heard in the laughter of people with occasional “Amen!”
One of my biggest takeaways from the service was the children’s message presented by the Director of Children and Family Ministries, Megan Elder. Like any good children’s message, there was a strong sermon for the adults tucked inside the words and objects for the children. Only two children came forward and Megan had a message for them as though they were 20 strong!
One little girl named Aria was striking. Every congregation with children has that child who stands out for a variety of reasons. In this case, little Aria had the answers to every question Megan tossed at them. “What is the season we’re beginning today?” Aria: “Lent.” “How long was Jesus in the wilderness?” Aria: “40 days.” “And what was the first temptation?” Aria: “To make stones into bread.” I was impressed! I asked if her parents were pastors!
After worship little Aria came up to me and presented me with a gift: a small cross she’d cut out and colored. It had the words, “God Loves You” written on it. I was so grateful! Her parents then exclaimed how curious Aria is and how observant she is about her environment wherever they are.
Aria is a child filled with curiosity and wonder. Curiosity and wonder are the “why” and “wow” of life! We seem to lose these gifts over time as we become adults. In his book, The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green writes, “We are never far from wonders. . . Aesthetic beauty is as much about how and whether you look, as what you see. From the cork to the supernova, the wonders do not cease. It is our attentiveness that is in short supply. Our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires.”
My lesson from Aria is to remain curious this Lenten season. We are challenged to look and question and to see the wonders that are around us. Maybe we will encounter the God who draws us closer because of our curiosity and wonder like Moses and the burning bush. May this Lenten season be a time of learning, growing, and faithfulness filled with why and wow!
Rev. Craig M. Howard

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